This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Does Sade Go Too Far, or Just Far Enough? He seizes her ferociously, places her as I was placed, arms suspended by two black straps; mine is the task of securing the bands; he inspects the knots: finding them too loose, he tightens them, ‘So that,’ he says, ‘the blood will spurt out under greater pressure’; he feels the veins, lances them on each arm, at almost the same moment. Blood leaps far: he is in ecstasy; and adjusting himself so that he has a clear view of these two fountains, he has me kneel between his legs so I can suck him; he does as much for the first one and then the other of his little friends, incessantly eyeing the jets of blood which inflame him. For my part, certain the instant at which the hoped for crisis occurs will bring a conclusion to the Countess’ torments, I bring all my efforts to bear upon precipitating this denouement, and I became, as, Madame, you observe, I became a whore from kindness, a libertine through virtue.1 (Sade, 643) The Marquis de Sade is perhaps best known for his outspoken stance on atheism— probably better termed ‘anti-theism’—and anti-morality, the most common tropes that in his novels and philosophical writing, often manifesting themselves in graphic depictions of violent sexual acts. His novels are filled with extremely detailed portrayals of taboo sexuality, including rape, sexual torture, incest, pederasty, coprophilia, slavery, and a multitude of fetishistic behaviors. Sade’s writing goes far beyond popular perceptions of pornography—it transcends what pornography transcends, creating a separate, almost incomprehensible category—far surpassing the object of desire and moving into the realm of the Real, resulting in a new form of perversion, jouissance, and desire. Discourse on pornography too often adopts legal and moralistic definitions of what it means to call something ‘pornographic,’ often resulting in analyses caught up in individual
This passage serves as an example of an atypical, yet accessible illustration of the Sadean scene. The more extreme scenes tend to be very eloquent and verbose, continuing for multiple pages—i.e., they are too long to quote in an essay of this length. Efforts will be taken to paraphrase examples from the text without quoting pages upon pages of Sade’s prose. The reader should keep in mind that practical considerations of this kind do Sade and his writing style a certain injustice.
and/or social opinion, questions of age appropriateness, and the unacceptability of public sexuality. The label of ‘pornography’ is often reserved for the discursive and artistic products of a society that are highly desirable but at the same time so deplorable that they are relegated to their own special place. It is important to question the grounds on which pornography is condemned: Why is pornography both loved and hated? Is anything that depicts sexuality properly labeled pornography? What is the difference between pornography and erotic literature? Why is pornography uncanny? The common theme of these questions is the Lacanian concept of jouissance. Jouissance is translated literally as ‘enjoyment’; however, in Lacanian discourse, the term incorporates a much wider range of significations. Jouissance is sexual pleasure that is inherently linked to death, the death drive, and the Real; it is bliss beyond bliss, pleasure to the point that it becomes unpleasure. The pursuit of jouissance through the object-cause of desire, the objet petit a, has the quality of what Lacan calls the extimate—it is both external and intimate insofar as jouissance results in the loss of subjectivity, but it is precisely this loss that is the ultimate goal of individual life as a subject. Jouissance is the result of desire that, if non-symbolically fulfilled,2 would ultimately destroy the individual—i.e., it would amount to a much too direct encounter with the Real, resulting in the individual’s movement from subject to an object devoid of desire. The reader of the passage quoted at the beginning of this essay, or any similar scene depicted in Justine, experiences a certain amount of jouissance insofar as there is pleasure in the sexual nature of the depiction, but the content and context of the passage forces the pleasure to go too far. In other words, it surpasses the object of desire. The notion of going too far is, as Žižek
Desire is fulfilled on a symbolic level all the time. The individual is protected by the symbolic veil, which masks the real aspects of desire.
jouissance. In “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis. ‘and I will exercise this right without any limit to the capriciousness of the exactions I may wish to satiate with your body. but of the Real.’” (Lacan. unconscious aspect of desire. subjective anxiety: This point will be examined in depth at the end of the essay. For the present purpose. when he or she has an adequate frame of reference in which to allow entrance into the Symbolic.4 Given its association with death and the Real. which results in naïve. the Phallus can be defined as the symbol of power that is the result of a signifier. which is paradoxically external and intimate. “Kant with Sade. which is merely a false symbol of the Phallus that always fails to reach its full meaning. Within the bounds of the Sadean maxim and jouissance. the speech act is always on the level of demand. One can only experience jouissance through a relationship with the Other. the Phallus. which is the undefined. One has access to the Phallus.3 The object of desire is surpassed in a similar manner to the ‘Sadean maxim. as it transcends sexuality. and desire is what lies beyond. by definition. the subject is not only barred from direct jouissance. is restricted from entrance into the Symbolic—i. The enunciated is that to which the signifier points. In this way. the intersection of jouissance and pornography. For Lacan. in the movement from signifier to signified in the speech act.” Lacan interprets the bar between signifier and signified (S/s) in traditional Sausurrean linguistics as an actual bar that represents the introduction of lack into the signifying system.’ as Lacan articulates it: “‘I have the right to enjoy your body. The Phallus is asexual—it has nothing to do with gender or sex. he or she does not possess a master signifier5 with which to form an adequate signification. 5 Lacan terms this master signifier ‘the Phallus’.asserts. the Phallus is not analogous to the penis.” 648) The phrase ‘anyone can say to me’ is particularly important insofar as it places the individual in a passive position to the Other—the objective world on which the individual projects his or her desire—thus situating subjectivity as dominated by the whims of the Other. subjectivity is no longer defined as such: subjectivity exists for something else. Contrary to the colloquial use of the word.’ anyone can say to me. something is lost. a term fraught with political and social baggage too large for the scope of this essay. something other.e. 4 3 3 . and that which is always deferred by the bar that separates signifier and signified. to a certain extent.. It moves from the level of the enunciation—the subject of the sentence—to the level of the enunciation. Jouissance is not part of individual reality as such.
distancing the subject from the object. the ego has an indirect relationship to its own reality—the reality that it creates as a defense. Justine presents an interesting problem to the experience of jouissance in the Other: the novel perverts the function of desire insofar as it presents the reader’s jouissance in a less alienated form—i. the more profoundly the subject becomes alienated from his jouissance. In this way.e. which only reveals itself through symbols. The Psychoses. This alienation is coupled with the development of the object: Lacan states that the object’s development results in greater alienation. almost to the point of subjective jouissance. In other words. the object is introduced but not fully developed in the Symbolic6 and represents something from the Real that the subject cannot simply dismiss as ‘fiction. deferred or transferred onto the jouissance of the Other. Instead of presenting jouissance in a symbolic. albeit necessarily. the subject. but frustration of an object in which his desire is alienated. Given that jouissance cannot enter the Symbolic. 6 4 . acceptable manner by filtering it through the Other. Function. See Lacan’s third Seminar.. that of jouissance—the signifier functions as a gap. whose strength our theorists now define by its capacity to bear frustration. is frustration in its very essence. Such an assertion suggests that the reader has a psychotic relationship to the Sadean text. once one adopts an object of desire or a means of desire fulfillment—in this case. the subject’s desire is always. 208) Lacan identifies the ego as the seat of frustration insofar as it is always necessarily alienated from its goal: jouissance. This perversion explains the repulsion that Justine evokes in most readers: repulsion is merely a reaction formation to the reader’s disturbing pleasure experienced when confronting this material.This ego. (Lacan.’ The alienation inherent to the jouissance of the Other is presented in more of a direct manner. almost. Not frustration of one of the subject’s desires. then. and the more developed this object becomes. as incorporation into the Symbolic order results in a further distancing from the object itself. Justine forces a more direct encounter with that which the subject cannot incorporate into the Symbolic.
Due to this unrestricted fulfillment of desire. dressed in torn overalls.. however. Arbitrary narrative is evident in almost any given pornographic film. 8 Žižek’s theory is based specifically on pornographic film. we must not ‘go to the end’ and ‘show it all’ (the details of the sexual act). for example. reality in itself serves to defend against the Real. who knocks on the lonely housewife’s door and asks.e. This type of narrative is also evident in Justine. Žižek’s conceptualization of pornography8 provides another perspective from which to view Justine as a work of pornographic literature that distorts and perverts the subject and object position as well as the narrative function. however. 38) The fulfillment of desire—the depiction of the sex act in an uncensored form—places pornography in its own category.confronts the failing defenses of reality and is forced to actively take a defensive stance7 against the disturbing object. pornography. The description of being actively defensive is meant to illustrate that. (Žižek. In the case of reading Justine.’ that moves us. under normal circumstances. which often depict ridiculous plotlines—such as the all-too-familiar scene of the plumber.’ It starts to function only as a pretext for introducing acts of copulation. the text itself is incorporated into reality in such a way that it breaks down the automatic defense of reality and calls for the subject to take a more active role in the interpretation of a threat to the ego. Justine presents the object of desire and jouissance in a more literal form than something as socially taboo as.’ the story is no longer ‘taken seriously. The plotline is of secondary importance to the sexual acts themselves. “Do you need your pipes cleaned?”—or even no plotline at all. ‘actively take a defensive stance’ appears to be a contradiction. 7 5 . he is essentially differentiating between the pursuit of desire and the attainment of desire: [I]f we want to have a love story that ‘takes. That is not to say that Justine imposes the Real directly onto the subject. this phrase. When Žižek distinguishes between pornography and a love story. Žižek asserts that the narrative in pornography becomes completely arbitrary when compared to the sex act. Borrowing from his theory in the present essay assumes that film and literature are both texts that signify in a similar manner. Justine’s story is one of grotesque At first glance. because as soon as we ‘show it all. the subject’s perception of reality is the agent of defense—i.
at least in part. is it pornography or the love story that provides the sublime Thing? In either case. this assertion contradicts the claim that pornography ‘goes too far. he says of pornography. The disturbing quality of Sade’s writing is. is something that merely exists.” (Žižek. only to inflict even greater abuse than the one before. and the relationship between reason and morality. the sublime is that which produces beauty to the point of discomfort. therefore.simplicity: the three hundred pages of dense prose do not contain much more than graphic descriptions of the sexual abuse experienced by Justine. or the thing-‐in-‐itself. one can interpret numerous philosophical themes9 in the text—such as the problematic definitions of vice and virtue.’ as indicated by its subtitle. we are stuck with vulgar groaning and fornication. the Thing cannot be experienced directly.’ Instead of the sublime Thing. “As soon as we ‘show it. 10 6 . devoid of any essence or judgment made from external sources. for Kant. Of course. The Thing. Žižek’s analysis becomes slightly problematic when. For Kant. and she eventually escapes back into the forest. It is beauty beyond beauty. subjects her to various sexual proclivities. the function of desire.” Further problems arise if one assumes that Žižek is using the phrase ‘sublime Thing’ in the strict Kantian sense.’ One would assume that this 9 Justine is Sade’s self-‐proclaimed ‘philosophical novel. keeps her captive. another man ostensibly ‘saves’ her. Returning to the Sadean maxim and the inherent surpassing of the object of desire in pornography. even horror. due to the fact that the object of desire is presented to the reader in a direct.. which is a sound assumption given his interest in German Idealism and continental philosophy in general.e. unveiled manner. 38) One must ask whether the ‘sublime Thing’10 is that which pornography surpasses. or is it the imaginary fulfillment of desire in the love story— i. “The Misfortunes of Virtue. it overwhelms the observer.’ its charm is dispelled. we have ‘gone too far. A man brings her back to a dwelling in the woods. in reference to the difference between a love story and pornography. to name a few—but the concentration remains on the sexual acts themselves. The narrative repeats this scenario throughout the novel. a young maiden who travels through France attempting to make sense of virtue in a world full of vice.
to a certain extent. and alienated. Žižek is implying here that reaching the object of desire is advantageous to the individual. It is the concept of the sublime Thing—its (un)attainability. It is ultimately a question of knowledge versus belief: in this case. For example. but only on the level of demand—that is. is the direct presentation of the object of desire. etc. 11 7 . contradictory terms in themselves insofar as they both refer to desire11 that. which contradicts the Lacanian discourse with which he is working. the sublime functions in a similar manner as the Lacanian end of desire. The sublime and jouissance are both. desire is different from ‘want’ or demand on the level of consciousness. however. based on the necessary belief that death far removed. the certain level of subjective danger arises at the moment of confrontation with the Real.—that complicates the question of pornography and the way it functions in regard to desire. He also introduces the idea of a proximity to jouissance. or thinks that it wants—which is contrasted to desire in that the object of desire is never attained as such until death. hence. when ‘Desire’ is used here in its very literal sense—that is. however. the Thing has the ability to inject itself into the subject’s life through the symbolic system without coming into such close proximity as to cause anxiety. whereas desires are the drive that is hidden from conscious awareness. The sublime. The Lacanian subject is certainly driven toward death. he or she may not know that the desire is both based on the drive toward death and the comfort resulting from oral stimulation. veiled. Reaching the object of desire may be advantageous. its incomprehensibility. in its grandiose and colossal nature (Kant). the individual knows that smoking is detrimental to his or her health but acts as if it is not.transcendence is precisely what further alienates desire in pornography and places the viewer or reader in an uncomfortably direct position with jouissance. Desire is the driving force of life but is always deferred. one might want to smoke a cigarette for the effects of nicotine. The individual is aware of demands. on the conscious level of what the subject wants. but knowledge of this drive is repressed. jouissance. On a basic level. The dichotomy of subjectivity and jouissance is broken down into a progression that situates the subject as something that can be close to or far from jouissance. In this manner. except in death and the loss of subjectivity. its potential danger to the subject.
as in the case of a confrontation with the sublime or jouissance in which desire is fully obtained. The subject wants to experience a deferred jouissance. the necessary finitude of subjectivity. Just as desire is what motivates life. as the sublime is cognitively incomprehensible and aesthetically devastating. according to the logic of the Freudian death drive. but he does not go so far to say that viewing pornography brings the individual any closer to subjective jouissance. by their very definitions.e. He implies a sort of movement-toward-jouissance. immediate. and once one ceases to desire. the subject becomes an object. Žižek identifies this breakdown of defense as the definition of pornography. does violence to both imagination and judgment (Kant). which. he or she certainly desires objectification. the jouissance of the self as opposed to something other. it is still in the realm of the Other. on which Lacan relies heavily in his theory of jouissance. Jouissance is the only direct—i. even at the expense of subjectivity. the attainment of the Thing. under the laws of the Symbolic system. This objectification is the source of both the pleasure and pain associated with jouissance. cannot otherwise incorporate itself into individual reality. non-symbolic. In this way. but. Jouissance and the sublime. are traumatic events insofar as they completely break through subjective defenses and result in individual non-existence as a desiring subject. The same holds true for the sublime: one does not experience the sublime without a certain amount of damage to the self. the jouissance of the Other.. The individual is driven toward the end of desire. wherein the 8 . The individual does not want to become an object. and real—experience of the sublime Thing. due to its immensity. results in the loss of the subject as such: the Lacanian definition of subjectivity is based on lack and desire. jouissance is the finality of life.attained. the sublime is a negative pleasure that. but desires subjective jouissance of the self.
Given pornography’s resistance to categorization within the structure of the subject. The World as Will and Representation. the success of the C. It is debatable whether the average twenty-first century American is any less sexually conservative than past generations. Schopenhauer maps out the various levels of sublime experience. Arthur Schopenhauer. but one aspect of sexual repression is certain: it has entered into a new discourse apart from questions of morality and obscenity. 12 9 . but much more organized manner than Žižek tacitly implies.f. Žižek’s analysis situates the sublime Thing contra ‘groaning and fornication. exists somewhere in between the Symbolic system. despite the assertion that pornography ‘goes too far’ and moves beyond desire. in which everything is alienated from the thing-initself.’ thus failing to recognize the influence that the sublime and the Thing. pornographic film and literature continue to be multi-billion dollar per year industries while at the same time are condemned as the epitome of immorality. Sexuality has become such a ubiquitous presence in television. Such a formulation implies that pornography is an ostensible means to a confrontation with the sublime Thing. In a similar. which he equates to a complete realization of the immensity of the universe and individual existence as nothingness. a way by which the individual attains the end of desire. it is somewhere in the middle of reality and the Real.individual experiences various levels of proximity to jouissance. and advertising that there is no longer any doubt of its ability to sell a product. have on the individual.12 never quite reaching it directly. film. ranging from the everyday experience of beauty to the full sublime. be it written or filmic. The pornographic text. but he stops short of taking such a specific position. however. Pornography is a text that is neither completely incorporated into the symbolic system nor is it removed from language to the extent that it poses a threat. the pornographic text presents the object of desire as just as veiled a form as any other way of experiencing it. each as the end of desire. and the sublime. in which the connection between subject and Thing is direct and immediate. which may be true to an extent.
It remains a subject outside the normative range: even if pornography has entered into its own discursive field. Despite its popularity. and for Kant is the thing-in-itself or the noumenon. or whether one can approach the Thing and observe it without ‘coming too close. the Thing represents so much more than philosophical uncertainty. 10 . On the other hand. similar to that of the objet petit a. It is not only the vast unknown. and not only in Žižek but also in Lacan. however. and Kant. The Thing is. In a certain sense. by its very definition. He fails to explain the extent to which one can assume a proximity to the Thing—that is. which for Hegel is the Thing. Such lack of verisimilitude. Hegel. The attraction to pornography is due to its presentation of the sublime Thing in its symbolic form. whether its apprehension is all-or-nothing.pornography industry is the logical conclusion of the intersection between sex and capitalism. it is still a subject whose acceptability is relegated to certain situations. Due to its extimacy. it is that which lies beyond physical death. the ultimate undefined and indefinable. Žižek makes many assumptions. in his preceding analysis. the object for which life is ultimately striving. in which one can talk about viewing and/or reading pornography. does not imply any kind of deficiency of theoretical rigor but rather an exemplification of the concept itself. some of which are less sufficiently supported than others. the Thing is philosophy’s biggest defensive mechanism: it is a blanket term for all that cannot be determined by way of philosophical analysis. Pornography is a representation of jouissance that allows the individual to symbolically advance one step further toward a confrontation with the sublime Thing without directly doing so. however. pornography still evokes a sense of discomfort. a concrete definition of the Thing is completely absent. paradoxically.’ Most importantly.
any idea the Thing must always be a Vorstellungrepräsentanz— literally. the subject would be able to simply avoid it. however. exists but is only one small part of the subject. the gap Martyn is playfully commenting on Lacan’s criticism of the Cartesian cogito.” (Lacan. It is characterized by its absence. the Thing becomes a source of anxiety due to its amorphous (non)existence: “[A]t the level of the Vorstellungen [representation. it is specifically its non-existence that makes it so subjectively dangerous. the Thing is not nothing. 63) The unidentified nature of the Thing—the idea that it is essentially a lack in meaning. and has relatively little agency compared to the unconscious. but literally is not. For the desiring subject. the cogito does not consider the unconscious as an aspect of subjectivity that the subject cannot symbolize. conception]. but it is also its intimacy that makes it so threatening. defined only by its negation—results in anxiety concerning desire: what does the subject desire other than the Thing. Ethics.”13 (Martyn. If the Thing was merely external. It is both that which is so far removed from the Real and the Real itself. The Thing’s existence is not the source of its perceived threatening nature. It is at the same time something so external and ultimately threatening that even a conception of it must be three times removed from the subject.” (Lacan.the Thing becomes the objectification of the notion that “the ego is not in charge of its own house. 71) One may not be able to forget this ‘prehistoric Other.’ but at the same time. on may not fully apprehend it. In a very Platonic move. For this reason. its representation must be removed a step further by its representative. Lacan identifies the Thing as something that cannot be represented as such.’ the ego. 175) Lacan borrows the concept of the Thing directly from Hegel and situates it within psychoanalysis as “the prehistoric Other that is impossible to forget. Lacan disagreed with Descartes on the point that the subject has power sufficient to utter ‘I’ as a signifier of the subject’s entire being. its intimacy makes it both absolutely necessary and an object of aversion. Ethics. a representative of a representation. insofar as the Thing is the object of desire that one cannot forget. its strangeness. The ‘I. the end. 13 11 .
therefore. prior to any repression. closing the gap is not a representative of death.e. which. The Thing exists even prior to the substance. In other words. the Thing creeps into subjectivity as a threat. and the death of the subject as such. and insofar as this gap sustains desire.. that of the pre-linguistic. and everything outside it. labeling the Thing as ‘primordial’ signifies a very specific category— specifically. and thus it is devoid of desire. operates free of negation—that is. the Thing is the immanence of the Real. is located in this gap. existing for the individual before the individual qua organic life enters the world. Substance is whole insofar as it has not yet been exposed to the lack of the signifier. It is as a function of this beyond-of-the-signified and of an emotional relationship to it that the subject keeps its distance and is constituted in a kind of relationship characterized by primary affect.14 which implies that it is also trans-individual. The Thing incorporates the entire contents of the Real. ceasing desire. Hence. but it is still the final object of desire ‘Substance’ is Lacan’s term for the individual prior to integration within the linguistic system. Even through the unconscious. Ethics. The gap is filled with primordial meaning that links the Real and Imaginary systems. 54) Such an assertion implies that the Thing is not only beyond the signified but is the beyond-of-the-signified—i. even despite the subject’s tendency to seek the Real through unconscious methods. In Lacanian terms.” (Lacan. the constant threat for the Real to impose itself on the subject. according to Lacan’s interpretation of Freudian theory. apprehension of the Thing amounts to filling the gap. in its essential non-existence for the conscious subject. 14 12 .between reality and the Real? The Thing. but it is death itself. In this way. negation is a retroactive and defensive function of the ego—the subject does not come into contact with the Thing outside the realm of negation. the Thing incorporates everything that lies beyond the limits of signification. as opposed to one aspect of the beyond. as the Real is that which is beyond the Symbolic. nor is it a symbolic death. Lacan defines the Thing as the “beyond-of-the-signified.
the end of desire.’ Sade’s writing provides the reader with a space in which he or she is able to approach the Thing from a ‘safe distance. that one is supposed to find again. Lacan locates the subject’s progression and unending quest for the Thing in terms of the Other: “The world of our experience. is nothing more than a progression toward the Thing that is always experienced in its absence. 52) Subjectivity. assumes that it is this object. Due to its threatening nature on the level of the ego.” (Lacan. the subject seeks symbolic means of satisfying the drive. Ethics. which. the Freudian world. takes form in transgressive literature such as that of the Marquis de Sade.’ As much as the subject avoids the Thing in his or her conscious life. das Ding. film. albeit temporarily. The progression toward the end of the drive and its manifestation in the constitutive lack (desire) are precisely what defines the subject within the world as a movement toward the Thing. Sade’s work is an example of this type of art. insofar as its nature as a lack drives its progression toward some kind of wholeness. By transgressing the bounds of the literary form by ‘going too far. as the absolute Other of the subject. for the present purpose. thus making the subject’s essential lack that much more apparent. Such indirect experience further alienated the subject from his or her own status as an individual. and other forms of art. the subject also knows on a certain unconscious level that the Thing is life’s finality. Such art allows the subject to ‘step outside’ the bounds of the linguistic system and the demand of the Other. in the act of owning desire for the self and essentially becoming 13 .to the subject. by actively seeking representations of transgression. It is to be found at the most as something missed. then. resulting in a momentary alleviation of the anxiety evoked by death. in things such as books. It is a means by which the individual assumes an active role in his or her own mortality. The subject defends against this threat of ontological transparency by seeking symbolic representations of the Thing within the Imaginary—that is.
which allows the subject to experience death symbolically. I will refer to this drive as the ‘drive-toward-transgression.’ Given Lacan’s dependence on Freud’s earlier theories on the foundations of psychoanalysis. he took on an active part. 15) For Freud. Pleasure is the result of the active role that the child assumes in the return of the lost object of desire. and Lacan’s interpretation of said theories. with at least a modicum of agency. and that it was in the latter that lay the true purpose of the game. Among other topics. the child’s game of throwing away his toy and then bringing it back is a means by which he can take pleasure in his mother’s departure and eventual return. unpleasureable though it was. Freud did not remain consistent throughout his career on the topic of instincts. Perhaps his final and most comprehensive formulation is found in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Just as the subject is dominated by the death drive. the subject thus masters his or her own ontological state. by repeating it. the famous articulation of the fort-da game: [The mother’s] departure had to be enacted as a necessary preliminary to her joyful return. instincts always lead to a form of pleasure and they are 14 . there also exists a drive to subvert the death drive through the active interest in representations of death. It is this drive to subvert death by seeking its most accurate and disturbing representation in art is the essence of Sade’s work. the drive to return to a state of non-organic existence. in the sense of the cessation of desire. it is necessary for the present purpose to revisit Freud’s notion of the instinct and Lacan’s subtle revision of it. as a game. The instinct takes on a practical tone in the form of child’s play. a text that came late in his life and reflected the influence of World War I on psychoanalytic thought. but. it gives the child a sense of active control over the situation by bringing the toy. (Freud. back when his anxiety grows too strong. […] At the outset [the child] was in a passive situation—he was overpowered by the experience. the mother. constantly revising and rethinking his earlier assertions. In this way.an agent of one’s own death.
9) In other words. death will always win. Freud then distinguishes between two types of instincts. Death can occur in a more abstract ontological manner than physical death. The perpetual nature of life instincts points to the repetition involved with instinct satisfaction. Eros and Thanatos. The sexual instincts are always aiming at the future. as always. which Lacan terms jouissance. Of course. 15 . as “those which lead what is living to death. There is a split. Freud asserts more than the death of the individual as a living being. the instincts toward life and death.” (Freud.’ or in other words.” (Freud. The result is a conflict: life instincts attempt to repress death. which are perpetually attempting and achieving a renewal of life. the experience of displeasure is only on the level of perception—which is fraught with defenses. remnants and manifestations of repressed desires. and “[m]ost of the unpleasure that we experience is perceptual unpleasure. as satisfaction and the activity associated with it is always pleasurable.always repeated: the satisfaction of an instinct may cause displeasure for one system but pleasure in another (Freud).’ With respect to death. attempting to ensure that a future will always exist. and others. as the realization of death’s immanence contradicts the subject’s desire. the return to the state of existence prior to birth. while the death instinct attempts to inject itself into the individual’s conscious life and thus destroy it. death refers to a return to ‘nonorganic existence. they are in a constant state of repeating their efforts to sustain the life of the individual. the sexual instincts. between conscious experience and unconscious knowledge. 55) Of key importance in this passage are the words ‘death’ and ‘perpetually. and outright fabrications—and does not equal displeasure for the entire psyche. despite the efforts of the life instinct.
the Thing lies on both sides of the subject’s present existence: it is pre-birth and post-death. there are no instincts that do not seek to restore an earlier state of things? that there are none that aim at a state of things which has never yet been attained? I know of no certain example from the organic world that would contradict the characterization I have thus proposed. which are in constant struggle with each other. the Thing. The sexual instincts.Freud further specifies that life and death instincts have the opposing aims of progression and regression. He situates the opposition in the distinction between humans and animals. (Freud. 49-50) It is apparent that Freud is hinting at human conscious awareness by placing so much emphasis on development and progress. He categorizes the instincts into their direction of movement. with the sexual instincts moving forward and the death instincts backward—progression versus regression. a question of conscious experience: Is it really the case that. The reader takes pleasure in the pain of the text. perhaps—while the death drive regresses the subject back to that pre-organic existence—again. The text functions as a material object that represents the Thing in the future. In other words. Sade creates a literary fantasy space in which the reader can view the Thing represented as fantasy in the present. apart from the sexual instincts. There is unquestionably no universal instinct towards higher development observable in the animal or plant world. the idea that 16 . and the reader’s choice to read it is the drive-toward-transgression in action—not only transgression of the literary space but also of instinctual movement. The Thing is always just barely beyond memory and immediate conscious perception. and in a certain sense. even though it is undeniable that development does in fact occur in that direction. it is everything that does not exist in memory or in the right now. thus the experience is not subjectively overwhelming. then. aim toward a development of human consciousness that progresses the individual toward a higher goal—the Thing. it haunts the subject from a place he or she cannot remember and constantly threatens to approach the subject directly from the future.
She transgresses both herself as a desiring subject and the Law that governs the instincts of self-preservation. begs her would-be master to take no restraint in the satisfaction of his desires. and depend upon me to omit nothing that may contribute to the perfection of your ecstasies. 497-498) The obvious references to taboo subjects such as child abuse. she begs to be a part of it. Juliette. throwing my arms around the Comte’s neck. Juliette does not merely consent to her involvement in the activity.the text contradicts the activity of the life instinct. I entreat you to employ my bottom in connection with quantities of such operations. As for Belmor. and torture (and probably murder) are certainly unsettling.’ (Sade. kneeling before that behind. When reading the following passage. 17 . who is obliged to shit during the operation. ‘is to have a little boy of five or six bound to the shoulders of a beautiful woman. Juliette not only subjects herself to victimization but also pleads for it. the reader takes pleasure in Juliette’s pleasure. completely without regard to the expense on her body and consciousness. laps up the blood while one after the other three men discharge themselves limp into his bum. ‘your mania makes my head fairly reel. ‘Belmor. ontological level. consciously surrendering herself to such torture and pain. Unlike her sister. Juliette rejects her own agency and subjectivity to satisfy someone else’s desire.’ […] ‘Fuck!’ [Juliette] exclaimed joyously. innumerable gashes are so inflicted as to cause the flowing of blood to collect and run in a single rivulet down between the buttocks and over the asshole of the woman. which is experienced along with the pain of imagining oneself in such a situation. he kneeling before that behind—the formulation of the details is correct as I give them. nothing more than the tool of the other’s desire. Essentially. Comte?’ The Comte nodded. or even that such a situation would ever occur: ‘This scoundrel’s favorite caprice. a knife is taken to the tender victim. Justine. who is forced into the situation of the victim.’ said Noirceuil. she becomes an object in the very strict sense. but this is only the beginning. consumption of blood. This willful consent and sincere desire to become her master’s toy is frightening for the reader in a fundamental.
the reader. as pleasure of instinct satisfaction occurs on an unconscious level whereas displeasure is perceptual (Freud). 15 18 . however. the reader’s displeasure in the text also manifests itself. the subject is not consciously aware of the pleasure involved in this event. Kant asserted that the universal Law of morality is one in which duty overrides I am using Law in the Kantian sense to mean a universal principle that would apply to all moral. and therefore satisfying. The Law asserts that the individual continue life as a desiring subject—something that Juliette not only purposefully disobeys but also takes pleasure in her self-‐denial. Her action is a wish fulfillment in its most extreme. different means of satisfaction. In this way. rational beings. perhaps unconsciously. Lacan articulates such a distinction within the realm of Kantian ethics and the Sadean scene. sense. It is in the transgression of the Law15 that places the individual. perhaps. which exists as a sort of anomaly to the ethical system. is only aware of the displeasure in perception—in reading the text. then. The Law dictates that the action of the individual is within the bounds of moral principles. transgression of the Law is contingent on the distinction between demand and desire.At the same time. and different considerations of their results. of the ability to transgress Law in order to experience the unconscious pleasure of approaching something within life that so closely resembles death. Of course. Transgression is inherently linked to desire. There is a fundamental difference between how the desiring subject manifests his or her desires versus his or her demands—how they take different forms. the moral principle would be directed toward the self. The individual. Insofar as Juliette revokes consideration for her own desire. making herself an object that exists purely for the other. in a position of perceived agency in non-agency: one sees evidence. as pleasure in the indirect satisfaction of the drive. although fictitious. and between instinct and drive. and would take the form of self-‐preservation or the sexual instinct. through the lens of Juliette. thus indirectly fulfilling the death drive while still organically alive. she chooses a closer proximity to death. In this case.
I have lead you to the point of apocalypse or of revelation of something called transgression. he reckons. if you prefer. transgression—translates into the literary form through Noirceuil. But how has he come to suppose. two inspirations: one invites to do what men call good—and to be virtuous—the other to elect what the call evil—or vice. they hold in check those impulsions to virtue which. who argues that vice is equally important as virtue when considering Nature’s creation. that prohibition. And my discussions of previous years have taught you to make a strict distinction between desire and need in Freudian experience. Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason 19 . 207) Similarly.e. desire does not end until the end. the idea that desire will always take precedence: Thus by leading you on to the ground of the ethics of psychoanalysis this year. The passions of which Noirceuil speaks are something very similar to what Lacan identifies as an impetus for transgression. of Kant and Sade. the death of the individual qua subject.. the law-abiding citizen assures us. Nature ingrained in our souls: master your passions and you’ll hesitate no more. maintains the unavoidable nature of desire. Sade views the binary of vice and virtue within the context of ethics in that one is compelled towards one or the other based on something similar to an instinct: ‘In all of life’s events. (Lacan.’ [Noirceuil] went on. we experience two impressions or. 142) Lacan’s assertion that transgression is inevitable—i. were it not for our passions. What we must examine is this conflict. and the Nameof-the-Father all exist only in relation to their antithesis. the ‘meaning of desire. on the other hand. this righteous man who addresses me. Drive. in all whose wherein we have freedom to exercise choice.16 Lacan. however paradoxical that may seem. which is also our own daily experience. This point of transgression has a significant relation to something that is involved in our inquiry into ethics. the Law.individual desire. I have brought you up against a certain limit that I illustrated through a confrontation. the meaning of desire. ‘at least. that is to say. or heightening of the difference by contrast.’ Desire essentially functions as a transgression in itself insofar as it seeks finality in death’s very infinitude. that the passions are the effects only of these latter wicked inspirations. Ethics. on 16 C. There would be no hesitation. we must find out why we are of two minds and hesitate. Juliette. and that virtues are always the effects of the former? what incontrovertible evidence has he to prove his hypothesis?’ (Sade.F.
is often viewed in Lacanian discourse as something that operates without assuming an end. manifests itself in Sade’s literature through representation. that there is a conflict between the life instinct and death drive—a conflict that Freud certainly identified and analyzed—that manifests itself in the drive-toward-transgression. The Sadean text never presents the Thing as an object but only as a representation of the object that is always out of reach. Representation is susceptible to interpretation and individual bias. which pushes the subject toward its own finality. It is evident. and 2) through the underlying cause of demand. The drive evokes pleasure in its perpetual movement around the object of desire without ever coming into direct contact with it. The drive-toward-transgression.the other hand. Such an imposition is inevitable. who always experiences it only through the lens of representation. 17 20 . veiled object that always defers its meaning away from its true existence17. the circular (in)experience of the final object of desire. then. that makes the Sadean scene so pleasurable. always desiring its attainment while demanding the continuation of the pursuit. in this sense. and what the Thing means to the subject. whereas existence in-‐itself. the Thing presents itself through literature on the distinction between desire and demand in two ways: 1) through the reader’s demand to experience the Thing as a filtered. through its conscious defenses. desire. In other words. It is this drive-toward-transgression. The drive-towards-transgression ensures that the subject both continues the circular pursuit of the Thing while also preventing the subject from reaching the end—that is. apart from any subjective influence. The reader circles around the Thing filtered through language and the printed page. in transgressing both the life instinct There is an important distinction here between what the Thing is as an object that exists. Transgression becomes a way for the subject to quell the anxiety concerning this conflict. as representation is removed from the object and is therefore an indirect means of experiencing it. but the subject. until the Thing manages to break the defenses of the ego and imposes itself on the subject. attempts to delay this event as long as possible due to the logic of the life instinct.
which is not transgressive simply due to its graphic content. but still operating within the bounds of desire. In this sense. as she has rejected it. who uses the text as a means to active mastery over the knowledge of eventual death and its subsequent repression. 18 21 . The Freudo-Lacanian model of repression holds that the repressed impulse will always return: if the subject can become an agent of its return. but also due to its effect on the reader. the subject is able to assume the position of the object while still maintaining the agency and desire that define the subject as such. the subject. the ego’s distress is then assuaged by the indirect nature of representation. thus making both distinctions problematic—situates the fictional character as someone without the illusion of subjective agency. In this case. creates a sort of temporary synthesis between life and death. I use this term instead of ‘objective’ since the other is always an object in the eyes of the subject. the relationship is complicated insofar as the event described—that is. The Marquis de Sade’s texts are only one example of transgressive literature. The drivetoward-transgression is essentially a drive to experience death without actually dying—by seeking the pornographic experience as Žižek articulates it. then. an activity that manifests itself in the seeking of representations in the external world. by viewing the other in an anti-subjective18 position. Similar to the child’s fort-da game. as opposed to a passive recipient of the uncanny feelings that result. Juliette’s existence rejects the subjective but does not adopt the objective. One way to obtain such a representation is to find examples in art. the subject takes an active stance in the face of eventual death. especially in literature that depicts the very loss of subjectivity the subject desires.and the death drive through the active perusal of death’s representation in the loss of subjectivity. fulfills a wish to subvert death by taking action both against and with it. This drive. the subject viewing the other as an object under the guise of a subject within the literary space.
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” Trans. New York. “Sade’s Literary Space. Pages 334-363. 1965. Lawrence. Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture. Mark Roberts. de Sade. Marquis. 2006. New York: Cambridge.--“The Freudian Thing.” Sade and the Narrative of Transgression. 23 . Marquis. Schehr. New York: Grove. 1968. David Allison. Žižek. de Sade. Trans. Eds. Pages 228-250. Austryn Wainhouse. and Allen Weiss. 1991. Bruce Fink. of the Meaning of the Return to Freud in Psychoanalysis. Justine. Cambridge: MIT Press. New York: Grove. Trans Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse. 1995. Juliette.
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